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Ban Says Palestinian Recognition Gains Momentum

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the international community's failure to advance a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is spurring governments and parliaments to take action to recognize the state of Palestine.

Ban was speaking on November 24 at a UN commemoration of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, in a statement read at the commemoration, welcomed changes in popular sentiment in the West that have reached "official political levels."

He cited Sweden's recognition of the state of Palestine, overwhelming support for recognition by parliaments in Britain, Ireland and Spain, and upcoming votes in France and other European countries.

Israel's UN Ambassador Ron Prosor told the General Assembly the actions by European parliaments were taking away any incentive for the Palestinians to negotiate, compromise, or renounce violence.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

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The Beet Goes On: UNESCO Sides With Ukraine Over Russia In 'Borscht War'

Ukrainian culture minister called it Ukraine’s "victory in the borscht war."

UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, has weighed in on the brouhaha over borscht, officially recognizing the cooking of the beetroot soup as part of Ukraine’s cultural heritage, despite similar claims by Russia.

The culture of Ukrainian borscht cooking “was today inscribed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding” by a UNESCO committee, a UNESCO statement said on July 1.

The decision was approved after a fast-track process prompted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the "negative impact on this tradition" caused by the war, UNESCO said.

"Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, UNESCO has initiated a series of emergency measures in the fields of culture, education, as well as the protection of journalists, in accordance with UNESCO's mandate," UNESCO added.

Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko hailed UNESCO's move, calling it Ukraine’s "victory in the borscht war."

"And remember and be sure that we will win both in the war of borscht and in this war," referring to Russia's invasion.

With reporting by AFP, Ukrayinska pravda, Ukrinform, and UNIAN

Armenian Parliament Strips Opposition Lawmakers Of Posts In Vote Boycotted By Opposition

Armenian opposition deputies Ishkhan Saghatelian (left) and Vage Akopian (composite file photo)

YEREVAN -- Two leading opposition lawmakers in Armenia have lost their posts at the National Assembly after they led rallies in Yerevan to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

All 66 lawmakers, most from Pashinian's Civil Contract party, who took part in the July 1 vote backed the measure to remove Ishkhan Saghatelian from the post of deputy speaker of the parliament and Vage Akopian from the post of chairman of the parliamentary commission on economic issues.

Opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote.

The initiators of the move justified the decision by arguing that the two lawmakers had missed a significant number of parliamentary sessions since last year.

Saghatelian, who along with Akopian was not present at parliament’s July 1 session, said to RFE/RL that the move to remove him and his colleague from the parliamentary posts was politically motivated.

The two politicians represent the Hayastan (Armenia) opposition faction in parliament.

Between May 1 and mid-June, the Armenian opposition led almost daily mass protests in Yerevan, demanding Pashinian's resignation.

The protests erupted after Pashinian signaled his readiness in April to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and “lower the bar” on the status of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh acceptable to the Armenian side.

Opposition politicians have accused Pashinian of helping Baku regain full control of Nagorno-Karabakh after Armenia lost control over parts of the Azerbaijani breakaway region and seven adjacent districts in a 2020 war that ended with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire monitored by Russian troops.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, and Interfax

U.S. Basketball Star's Trial Begins In Moscow

U.S. basketball star Britney Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist (file photo)

U.S. basketball star Britney Griner appeared in a Russian court on July 1 for the start of a drug-possession trial more than four months into her custody and with U.S.-Russian relations at a low point.

The court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki this week told Griner, a WNBA player and two-time Olympic gold medalist who was playing for a Russian team, that she faces up to 10 years in prison on the possession and smuggling charges.

Authorities said they found cannabis oil in vape cartridges in Griner's luggage when she was at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February.

Griner was also told at the closed-door hearing that her detention had been extended for another six months, to December 20.

The U.S. State Department in May classified Griner as "wrongfully detained" and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

Griner's family and supporters have tempered concerns in pursuit of a quiet resolution of the case.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on July 1 that "the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited medication containing narcotic substances" and thus the case "can’t be politically motivated."

Griner's arrest came as the West was warning of a massive buildup of Russian troops in preparation for its February 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

Since the arrest, speculation has mounted that Moscow may be hoping Griner's high profile in the United States could be used to help spur a prisoner swap.

Russia is also holding another former Marine, Paul Whelan, on spy charges that the United States has repeatedly described as unfounded.

Only around one percent of Russian trials end in acquittal.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

Bulgaria Rejects Moscow Ultimatum To Reverse Decision To Expel 70 Diplomatic Staff

Outgoing Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov

Bulgaria’s outgoing prime minister, Kiril Petkov, has rejected a Russian ultimatum to reverse a decision to expel 70 Russian diplomatic staff, calling Moscow’s behavior “unacceptable.”

Bulgaria has been plunged into political turmoil in recent days after parliament last week passed a vote of no-confidence in the coalition government and Petkov this week announced the Russian expulsions for breaching diplomatic protocol.

On June 30, the Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova delivered a diplomatic note, which included a threat to close the Russian Embassy unless Sofia reversed the expulsion by noon on July 1.

Petkov said in a video statement that Russia's behavior was unacceptable.

"We will not allow Bulgaria to take a wrong turn.... We will not allow foreign diplomats to give ultimatums to the Bulgarian state (to comply with their demands) by noon," he said.

Petkov also announced that his centrist PP party would nominate Finance Minister Assen Vassilev to become the country's next prime minister. He called on all his coalition partners to back his party's quest to uproot widespread corruption and to work to boost incomes.

The diplomatic dispute with Russia has fractured the government after one coalition ally, the Socialists, said they would not back a new government led by Petkov.

The Socialists, who have traditionally been more friendly towards Moscow, said they were angered by Petkov's decision to expel the Russians.

Earlier on July 1, they called on parliament to vote to revoke the expulsions to save diplomatic ties with Moscow. The biggest opposition party, the center-right GERB, said it backed the expulsions.

Analysts say Petkov hopes his party can stay in office and avoid new elections by putting forward someone other than himself to be prime minister. Following Vassilev's nomination, the Socialists said they were ready to hold negotiations.

President Rumen Radev will later on July 1 hand a mandate to the PP to form a new government. The party, which will have seven days to come up with detailed proposals, said it would only propose a new cabinet if it musters an absolute majority in parliament.

With reporting by Reuters

Russia Ends All Public Anti-COVID Restrictions

Official infection numbers last spiked in Russia in February, although like many places testing has eased there. (file photo)

Russian officials have announced the end of all anti-COVID restrictions on the public, including mask requirements.

The country's consumer authority, Rospotrebnadzor, said 93 percent of infected patients were mild or asymptomatic.

It said it was "suspending previously introduced restrictions, including the mask regime, a ban on public catering at night, and a number of other measures."

But the decree issued on July 1 makes no mention of two-year-old restrictions on leaving the country via land routes.

Official infection numbers last spiked in Russia in February, although like many places testing has eased there.

More than 800,000 people in Russia have died from confirmed COVID-19 cases from a total of 18 million infections in the country.

Some Russian physicians and other medical professionals faced punishment for blowing the whistle on seemingly underreported COVID-19 figures early in the 2 1/2-year pandemic.

Researchers quickly developed and launched a vaccine, Sputnik-V, and exported it, but take-up was hampered by distrust among Russians.

Some 52 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated against the virus.

Recent surges in case numbers in Europe and the Americas, in particular, have been offset by numbers suggesting current variants are less lethal than some previous ones.

With additional reporting by Reuters

Four Men Found Guilty, Handed Long Prison Terms For Murder Of Daghestani Journalist In 2011

Journalist Khadzhimurad Kamalov was shot dead in Daghestan in 2011.

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- More than a decade after prominent journalist Khadzhimurad Kamalov was gunned down in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Daghestan, a court sentenced four men to lengthy prison terms after finding them guilty of his murder in the high-profile case.

On July 1, a court in Russia’s southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don, sentenced the former deputy prime minister of Daghestan, Shamil Isayev, to 16 years in prison after finding him guilty of ordering the assassination.

Two men, whom the court found guilty of conducting the deadly attack, Murat Shuaibov and Magomed Khazamov, were sentenced to 23 and 24 years in prison, respectively.

A fourth defendant, Magomed Abigasanov, who pleaded guilty to taking part in the attack, was handed a 16-year prison term.

Prosecutors had sought life in prison for Isayev, Shuaibov, and Khazamov. The high-profile trial started in November 2020.

Khadzhimurad Kamalov, the editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper Chernovik, was shot dead in mid-December 2011 outside the newspaper's office in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan.

Kamalov's newspaper was known for in-depth reporting on police abuses in the fight against an Islamist insurgency that originated in neighboring Chechnya and spread across Russia's North Caucasus.

After the verdicts and sentences were announced, Kamalov's brother, Magdi Kamalov, said that he hoped the case will be returned to investigators as, according to him, more people were involved in the journalist's murder.

Khadzhimurad Kamalov's murder was harshly criticized by international and domestic human rights organizations.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said at the time that Kamalov's murder sent "a chilling message to journalists" seeking to cover alleged abuses by authorities and called on the Russian government to conduct a "thorough, transparent and independent" investigation into the journalist's killing and bring the perpetrators to justice promptly.

Russians Hoping To Travel To Ukraine Will Need Visa As Of July 1

Ukraine's Border Service chief, Serhiy Deyneko (file photo)

KYIV -- Russian citizens will need to obtain visas to enter Ukraine as of July 1, the chief of Ukraine's Border Service, Serhiy Deyneko announced.

"The Ukrainian government’s decision to cancel visa-free visits for Russians went into effect today. Visa-free trips are a privilege for citizens of developed democracies that neither kill civilians nor endanger the sovereignty of neighboring nations," Deyneko wrote on Facebook.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said earlier that Russians could apply for visas in eight cities across Russia -- Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Kaliningrad, Kazan, Novosibirsk, Rostov-on-Don, and Samara – at the offices of VFS Global, a visa outsourcing company.

The applications will be processed by Ukrainian diplomatic missions in other countries, as Ukraine severed diplomatic ties with Russia shortly after Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion on February 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in mid-June that the move to introduce visas for Russians was made "to counter unprecedented threats to Ukraine's national security."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said at the time that it would respond to the move with measures "based on Russia's national interests and humanitarian issues."

Popular Kyrgyz Blogger Detained For Alleged Calls For Mass Disorder

Kyrgyz blogger Adilet Ali Myktybek (file photo)

BISHKEK -- A Kyrgyz blogger known for his critical reports of authorities has been detained for 48 hours before a pretrial hearing to decide on whether to place him in detention or under house arrest.

Adilet Ali Myktybek, known on social media as Alibek Baltabai, faces charges of calling for social unrest on the Internet, allegations he says are politically motivated.

Myktybek was detained late on June 30 after he was questioned by Bishkek police for a third time since late May, the Birinchi Mai district court said.

Opposition politician Ravshan Jeenbekov told RFE/RL that Myktybek's supporters are currently looking for a lawyer to defend the noted blogger.

After questioning earlier by police, Myktybek said that the case against him is the authorities’ retaliation for his numerous reports on Facebook criticizing them.

"This is, I am confident, pressure being put on me for my opposition stance and my criticism of the authorities. What they are using against me is my own reports, in which I expressed my social and political stance, my activism," Myktybek said.

Myktybek is also known for actively covering anti-government rallies and pickets in the Central Asian nation.

He is also a freelance correspondent of the Next television channel, whose director, Taalai Duishembiev, is currently in pretrial detention over the airing of a controversial report in which an interviewee alleged the existence of an agreement between Bishkek and Moscow to send troops to assist Russian armed forces in the ongoing war against Ukraine.

Domestic and international human rights groups have urged Kyrgyz authorities to release Duishembiev, who was arrested on March 24.

Montenegrin President Urges Calm Over Government Deal With Serbian Church

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic (file photo)

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has downplayed a seemingly imminent agreement between the government in Podgorica and the Serbian Orthodox Church in an effort to ease tensions in his fractious Balkan coastal state.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic pledged on June 29 that despite coalition frictions his government would sign a "fundamental agreement" governing sensitive relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has considerable influence in his country and within the ruling coalition.

A majority of Montenegrins worship under the auspices of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has an arm based in Cetinje called the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral.

"The most important thing for Montenegro is to unblock the negotiation process and move toward Europe, but due to the circumstances, it has become an important political issue," Djukanovic said in Madrid after a NATO summit concluded on June 30.

"We just need to reduce tensions [and] the media should not overemphasize the importance of this issue," he added.

Some protests broke out in Podgorica after Abazovic's announcement alongside the Serbian patriarch.

In addition to unsettled questions about property and primacy, the Serbian church has sometimes meddled politically in Montenegrin affairs, including by organizing protests before the election that unseated Djukanovic's governing allies in 2020.

Critics say the draft agreement recognizes Serbian Orthodox subjectivity six centuries further back than the church is afforded in Serbia itself, and that it improperly extends extraterritoriality to it.

It also reportedly sets criteria for settling registration disputes over property. The Serbian church controls hundreds of properties throughout Montenegro.

Abazovic did not specify when the agreement should be signed.

Djukanovic has made Montenegrin identity a prominent theme over a checkered tenure atop domestic politics dating back to the breakup of Yugoslavia three decades ago, and has sought to curb the Serbian church's influence while promoting a Montenegrin alternative group.

Montenegro existed in federation with Serbia until a referendum opted for independence in 2006, and the two countries' ethnonationalist, historical, and cultural ties are deep.

Montenegro's largest ruling party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), and the Social Democrats (SDP) criticized a draft of the "Basic Agreement on the Regulation of Mutual Relations" published on June 28 as overly generous toward the Serbian church.

Abazovic countered that "those parties had an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction" but neither group's officials objected when they saw the draft agreement before publication.

He suggested they could exercise their rightful powers but that "this government will close this issue."

After their meeting at church headquarters in Belgrade on June 30, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Porfirije said the new agreement would mark a "crowning" of the normalization of relations between Montenegro and his church.

He noted that efforts to hammer out an agreement had begun in 2012.

Since then, in late 2019, Djukanovic and a previous government pushed through a legislative challenge to the Serbian church's operations and property.

The move sparked a walkout by some pro-Serbian parties and protests that eventually cost Djukanovic's allies their governing majority in 2020 elections.

Indonesian Leader 'Conveyed Message' From Zelenskiy To Putin

Indonesia's president, Joko Vidodo (left), says he was given the message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) during a stopover in Kyiv on June 29.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo says he delivered a message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his meeting with the Kremlin leader on June 30, one day after a stopover in Kyiv.

He did not reveal the contents of the message.

"I conveyed President Zelenskiy's message to President Putin," Widodo said in Moscow as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine entered its 19th week.

He expressed his "readiness" to facilitate "communication" between the two leaders.

Indonesia currently holds the rotating presidency of the Group of 20 wealthiest nations and will host a G20 summit in Bali in November.

"Although the external situation is still difficult, it is still important to move toward a settlement and open dialogue," Widodo said in Moscow.

He said that his country would like "the war to end soon."

After several meetings between Russian and Ukrainian delegations early in the Russian invasion that began on February 24, peace talks have mostly been on hold.

Zelenskiy said he has accepted an invitation to the summit but his attendance will depend "on the composition of the summit's participants" -- an apparent reference to Putin.

Indonesia has reportedly come under pressure from several Western nations not to invite Putin over the war.

Based on reporting by AFP and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

At Least 18 Killed By Missile Attack On Odesa Apartments, Recreational Center

A handout picture from local authorities showing the aftermath of a missile strike on a residential building in Ukraine's Odesa region, on the morning of July 1.

At least 18 people have been killed, including two children, in Russian missile attacks on residential areas near the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, authorities said, a day after Russian invading forces withdrew from a strategic Black Sea island.

Video of the pre-dawn attack showed the charred remains of buildings in the small town of Serhiivka, located about 50 kilometers southwest of Odesa. Ukrainian news reports said missiles struck a multistory apartment building and a resort area.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians and refugees, and Western aid and reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

“A terrorist country is killing our people. In response to defeats on the battlefield, they fight civilians," Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Twitter.

Ukrainian emergency officials said 18 people had died, including two children. Another 30 were injured, including three children.

Sixteen of the 18 victims died in the strike on the apartment building, Ukrainian emergency officials said.

The air strikes followed the pullout of Russian forces from Snake Island on June 30, a move that was expected to potentially ease the threat to nearby Odesa. The island sits along a busy shipping lane.

The Kremlin portrayed the pullout from Snake Island as a “goodwill gesture.” Ukraine’s military claimed a barrage of its artillery and missiles forced the Russians to flee in two small speedboats. The exact number of withdrawing troops was not disclosed.

Control of Snake Island, located about 40 kilometers from Ukraine’s coast near the Danube Delta, had enabled Russia to threaten the sea lanes leading to and from Odesa, Ukraine’s main port for shipping grain to the world.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on July 30 that the recapture of Snake Island would significantly limit Russia's actions.

The Odesa-area attacks come in the 19th week since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the largescale invasion, with Russian forces otherwise focused on what Ukrainians call an "enormous" bombardment of the last major city holding out in the east, Lysychansk, and the shelling of civilian settlements in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

It also follows an attack earlier this week on a crowded shopping mall in Kremenchuk, in central Ukraine, leaving at least 18 people dead and dozens more missing. Ukrainian officials have described the mall attack as a "terrorist" act, while Moscow has denied responsibility.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced on July 30 that Ukrainian troops had expelled Russian forces and recaptured Snake Island in a development that he said significantly limits Russia's actions.

Control of Snake Island, located about 40 kilometers from Ukraine’s coast near the Danube Delta, had enabled Russia to threaten the sea lanes leading to and from Odesa, Ukraine’s main port for shipping grain to the world.

The head of the military administration of the Luhansk region to the east, Serhiy Hayday, said Lysychansk "is constantly being shelled with large [gun] calibers" by the Russian forces attempting to encircle the strategic hilltop city -- a key battleground in Moscow's attempt to conquer Ukraine's industrial heartland of Donbas.

After weeks of fighting that killed hundreds of civilians and turned the city into rubble, Moscow took control of neighboring Syevyerodonetsk, and is now setting its sights on Lysychansk.

Ukraine's Western allies have been sending weapons to Ukraine, and on June 30 the United States said it would provide a further $800 million in weapons and military aid.

Speaking after a NATO summit in Madrid, U.S. President Joe Biden said the war would not end with Russia defeating Ukraine, adding, "We are going to support Ukraine for as long as it takes."

U.S. Blocks More Than $1 Billion In Trust Fund Linked To Russian Oligarch Kerimov

Russian billionaire Suleiman Kerimov (file photo)

The United States says it has blocked a U.S.-based trust worth more than $1 billion linked to Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov.

The Treasury Department said in a news release on June 30 that Kerimov secretly managed Heritage Trust by bringing money into the United States through shell companies and foundations in Europe.

The action comes weeks after Fiji handed over a superyacht linked to Kerimov to the United States.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen vowed that Washington would continue using “the full range of our tools to expose and disrupt those who seek to evade our sanctions and hide their ill-gotten gains.”

The United States will "actively implement the multilaterally coordinated sanctions imposed on those who fund and benefit from Russia's war against Ukraine," she said in a statement.

The U.S. and European governments announced a crackdown on Russian oligarchs following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of a raft of Western sanctions.

The Treasury Department joined the Justice Department and other agencies earlier this year to form a task force known as REPO -- short for Russian Elites, Proxies and Oligarchs -- to work with other countries to investigate and prosecute oligarchs and individuals allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That consortium blocked and froze $30 billion in sanctioned individuals’ property and funds in its first 100 days in operation, the Treasury Department reported on June 29.

Kerimov has been under U.S. sanctions since 2018 over alleged money laundering and his role in the Russian government. His empire is built mainly on Russia's vast natural resources.

Kerimov appeared in February with several other billionaires alongside Putin as Russian tanks crossed into Ukraine.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Macron Says Compromise Found On EU Membership Talks For North Macedonia

French President Emmanuel Macron (file photo)

French President Emmanuel Macron says he believes a compromise has been found on the framework for negotiations on EU membership for North Macedonia.

Macron provided no details when he made the comment on June 30 at a news conference at the close of the NATO summit in Spain.

EU officials confirmed to RFE/RL that the proposal takes into account concerns expressed by both sides, potentially breaking a deadlock that has prevented the start of accession talks for more than two years.

Balkan countries are deeply frustrated about the impasse in their bids to join. Especially frustrating for North Macedonia is EU member Bulgaria’s veto on the start of negotiations because of a dispute with Skopje relating to history and language.

Albania is being held back because the EU has linked its progress to that of North Macedonia.

Last week, Bulgarian lawmakers conditionally approved dropping their opposition, raising the prospect of progress in the Western Balkans' quest for EU membership.

EU officials emphasized that, if the proposal cited by Macron is accepted, it would enable a major step forward in enlargement talks.

"This would pave the way for the immediate adoption (in the EU Council) of negotiating frameworks for North Macedonia and Albania and for the organization of intergovernmental conferences with both countries," one EU official said.

If the French proposal is accepted, an intergovernmental conference can be expected to be organized in the coming days that would formally start the process of membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reported.

European Council President Charles Michel, welcomed the French proposal, saying on Twitter it “addresses concerns expressed” and brings the Council closer than it’s ever been to adopting a framework for the talks.

“Now is the time to say yes,” he added.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell echoed those words.

“This is a moment to move forward in bringing the #WesternBalkans into the EU,” he said on Twitter, also welcoming the compromise proposal presented by Macron.

Skopje announced shortly after Macron's announcement that it had received a proposal from the French presidency of the EU on June 30, the last day that France holds the rotating position.

"This is the basis for opening a broad consultation process first in the government and coalition partners, and then with the president, parliament and opposition, as well as with the civil sector, experts and the entire public in the country," the government said.

It did not specify what the proposals were but said a decision would be made "as promised, jointly, on the merits, in accordance with the strategic interests of the country and all its citizens."

The government also thanked Macron and the French presidency of the EU for their efforts to overcome obstacles and preserve European credibility in the Balkans.

Albania and North Macedonia have had EU candidate status for years. The stalled accession process was raised last week by the leaders of the two countries before EU leaders formally accepted Ukraine and Moldova as candidates to join.

With reporting by Reuters

Russia Deeply Offended By Johnson's 'Toxic Masculinity' Comment On Putin's Decision To Invade Ukraine

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) said this week that the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) against Ukraine was "a perfect example of toxic masculinity." (file photo)

Russia summoned Britain's ambassador to Moscow to protest Prime Minister Boris Johnson's remarks about President Vladimir Putin and the remarks of another British official about top Russian government figures.

Russia told Ambassador Deborah Bronnert that it "firmly" opposed the “boorish statements” of the British leadership regarding Russia, its leader, official representatives of the authorities, as well as the Russian people, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on June 30.

"In polite society, it is customary to apologize for remarks of this kind," it said, scolding Britain for the "unacceptable insulting rhetoric."

Johnson said on June 29 in comments to German broadcaster ZDF that Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine was "a perfect example of toxic masculinity."

He said that, if Putin were a woman, “I really don't think he would've embarked on a crazy, macho war of invasion and violence in the way that he has.”

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also provoked Russia's ire after he accused the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman of "every week, threatening to nuke everyone or doing something or another."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was "unacceptable" for British officials "to share deliberately false information, especially on alleged threats by Russians 'resorting to nuclear arms.'"

The Russian Embassy in London also protested the remarks in a note to the Foreign Office, the embassy said in a statement published on June 30.

“The note points out that such rhetoric is unacceptable and inappropriate both in form and content," the statement said.

It also emphasized that the British authorities’ words were perceived in Russia "as a manifestation of profound disrespect" for the country and its diplomatic traditions.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Kyrgyz President Signs Into Law Controversial Bill Legalizing Casinos

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov (file photo)

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has signed into law a controversial bill that legalizes casinos, which have been outlawed in the Central Asian nation for a decade.

According to the law endorsed by Japarov on June 30, only foreigners who are at least 21 years of age and have no health problems, will be allowed into the casinos.

The law also says that casinos cannot be set up in residential buildings, kindergartens, schools, universities, education and culture centers, medical institutions, and religious sites.

Many people in Kyrgyzstan oppose legalizing casinos, a move initiated by Japarov last year.

Several rallies protesting the reopening of casinos have been held in Bishkek and the country's second largest city, Osh, in recent days.

The protesters said the bill was approved without adequate public discussion and therefore should be withdrawn. They also raised concerns that even though casinos will be open to foreigners only, Kyrgyz citizens will end up being clients as well.

Lawmakers approved the bill on June 22 after voting was disrupted four times due to the refusal of many lawmakers to take part in the proceedings.

Casinos were banned in Kyrgyzstan in 2012. Since then, numerous underground casinos have been uncovered by law enforcement in Bishkek, Osh, and other towns and cities.

Japarov has insisted that the move to legalize casinos will help tackle the economic hardships the former Soviet republic has faced for decades.

Rights Watchdog Says Iran Secretly Executed 10 Prisoners On June 29

Some human rights sources says that more than 85 percent of executions in Iran are carried out in secret. (file photo)

The Norway-based watchdog Iran Human Rights says it has found evidence that 10 people convicted of various charges had their punishments meted out in a mass execution on June 29 at the Rajai-Shahr prison in the city of Karaj.

In a statement dated June 30, the group said eight of those executed had been convicted of murder, while the ninth had been convicted of sodomy and the tenth of rape.

Farhad Meisamy, a civil activist who has been in the same prison for more than four years, wrote in a note earlier this month that "about 200 executions are carried out in this prison every year."

As of June 28, 239 executions had been recorded in Iran this year, including more than three a day over the past month, according to Iran Human Rights, a pace that puts Iran within reach of the 517 executions it carried out in 2017.

"There is no evidence of any dramatic changes [in crime rates] that would explain this," Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of the rights watchdog told RFE/RL by telephone.

Furthermore, he added, Iranian authorities are aware that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent to violent crimes or drug offenses, "so the aim is not to fight crime or deter crime."

Amiry-Moghaddam noted that the wave of executions recorded in May, when 50 prisoners were put to death, coincided with the start of mass protests over rising food prices in southwestern Iran.

Some human rights sources, including the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), have previously stated that more than 85 percent of executions in Iran are carried out "in secret and without official and public information."

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Condemns Syria's Decision To Recognize Eastern Regions As Independent

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry has described Syria's decision to recognize Luhansk and Donetsk as "an unfriendly act." (file photo)

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has strongly condemned the decision of Syria to recognize the eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent.

A ministry statement on June 30 said the decision was "an unfriendly act against Ukraine, an encroachment on its sovereignty and territorial integrity, a gross violation of Ukrainian law, the UN Charter, and the fundamental norms and principles of international law."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy cut relations with Syria on June 29 over the decision, which the ministry said was an attempt by the Syrian regime “to give pseudo-subjectivity to the Russian occupation administrations in Donetsk and Luhansk at the behest of its Kremlin curators.”

Parts of Luhansk and Donetsk came under Russia-backed separatists' control after Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Ukraine is also initiating the process of imposing a trade embargo on Syria, as well as imposing other sanctions on Syrian legal entities and individuals, the Foreign Ministry statement said.

Ukraine closed its embassy in Damascus in 2016 and in 2018 ordered the Syrian Embassy in Kyiv to close “in connection with the crimes of the regime of Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian people."

Syria, a close ally of Russia and a beneficiary of Russian military assistance in its civil war, is the first state other than Russia to recognize the two separatist regions.

Rector Of Leading Economy Academy In Moscow Detained On Embezzlement Charges

Vladimir Mau is the rector of Russia's Academy of National Economy and State Service (file photo)

The rector of Russia's presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANKHiGS), Vladimir Mau, has been detained on embezzlement charges.

The Interior Ministry's Main Directorate for Moscow said on June 30 that Mau's arrest was linked to a high-profile fraud case launched last year against former Deputy Education Minister Marina Rakova and the director of the RANKHiGS's Institute of Social Studies, Sergei Zuyev.

Russian authorities said at the time that Rakova was suspected of embezzling 50 million rubles ($950,000) from the ministry.

Mau's pretrial restrictions will be decided by a court in Moscow within 48 hours.

Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS

International Court Issues Warrants For Three War Crimes Suspects Linked To Russia-Georgia War

The International Criminal Court in The Hague says there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that each of the three suspects "bears responsibility for war crimes."

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has issued arrest warrants for three people wanted on suspicion of committing war crimes during the 2008 Russia-Georgia War.

The court said on June 30 that the arrest warrants were issued for Lieutenant General Mikhail Mindzayev, Gamlet Guchmazov, and David Sanakoyev, who served in the separatist government of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The statement said that its judges ruled six days earlier that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that each of these three suspects bears responsibility for war crimes.”

"There are reasonable grounds to believe that civilians perceived to be ethnically Georgian were arrested in the South Ossetian part of Georgia, and subsequently detained, mistreated, and kept in harsh detention conditions in a detention center in Tskhinvali, before being used as a bargaining tool by Russia and the South Ossetian de facto authorities, and used for an exchange of prisoners and detainees," the statement said.

"As a result of the exchange, the detainees were forced to leave South Ossetia."

The court launched an investigation in 2016 into the war that claimed hundreds of lives and left thousands of people displaced.

Last year, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg concluded that “grave human rights abuses” occurred in South Ossetia, which is currently controlled by Russia.

Mindzayev and Guchmazov served as top officials of the breakaway South Ossetia's separatist government's de facto Interior Ministry, while Sanakoyev was the region's de facto presidential representative for human rights.

Mindzayev and Guchmazov face charges of unlawful confinement, torture and inhuman treatment, outrages against personal dignity, hostage-taking, and the unlawful transfer of civilians both during and after the five-day war that erupted on August 8, 2008.

Sanakoyev, meanwhile, faces charges of hostage-taking and the unlawful transfer of civilians.

Russia recognized South Ossetia and Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent countries after the 2008 war and has maintained thousands of troops in both regions since then.

With reporting by AFP and AP

Poland Finishes Construction Of Wall On Belarusian Border To Keep Migrants Out

The wall at the Polish-Belarusian border stretches for 186 kilometers. (file photo)

Poland says it has completed a steel wall stretching along the border with Belarus to stop the flow of illegal migrants after tens of thousands, mostly from the Middle East, tried to enter the EU-member state from the Belarusian territory last year.

Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said on June 30 that the construction of the 5.5 meter-high, 186 kilometer-long steel wall will "separate us from the bleak dictatorship of (Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr) Lukashenka," whom the West blames for funneling the influx of migrants.

Poland and other European Union states say Lukashenka orchestrated the migrant crisis along with his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in retaliation for sanctions imposed on him and his regime for a brutal crackdown on dissent after mass protests over a disputed August 2020 presidential election handed Lukashenka a sixth term in power.

Poland had set up a no-access zone at the border, which expires on June 30, banning nonresidents, including migrants, aid workers, and media from the area. The emergency order will not be renewed.

At least 12 people died at the Polish-Belarusian border, where migrants and refugees faced harsh, freezing conditions during the winter.

Iranian Court Rejects Twitter Activist's Appeal For Conviction On Insulting Supreme Leader

Iranian activist Hossein Shanbehzadeh (file photo)

Hossein Shanbehzadeh, a literary editor and Twitter activist, says an Iranian court has denied the appeal of his prison sentence for insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni.

Shanbehzadeh wrote on June 30 that his six-year prison sentence has been upheld for being convicted of "insulting the sanctities and the leader of the Islamic republic."

Shanbehzadeh -- who was sentenced on September 12 -- posted the appellate court's verdict, which says he will have to serve 3 and 1/2 years of the sentence.

In a note to his friends and online followers, Shanbehzadeh said the most important thing to him is having freedom of expression, which he said he never gave up in writing online. He urged people to "not give up and to be free," adding that "the government has destroyed my life and future."

Shanbehzadeh concluded his note saying: "Hopefully one day we will all be free [and] no prison [will be] greater than ignorance and oppression."

There has been an increased crackdown on online activists in Iran in recent weeks.

On June 29, Vida Rabbani, a journalist and online activist, announced on Twitter that she had been sentenced to five years in prison with some of the time suspended.

The crackdown comes as pensioners and other labor groups have been protesting about the poor economic situation in the country, blaming the government for spiraling inflation, high unemployment, and failing to deliver on pledges to increase wages and improve living conditions.

The government's response to the protests has been arrests, violence, and the repression of participants.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Noted Bashkir Activist Held In Greece, Faces Deportation To Russia

Bashkir activist Tahir Minnebayev (file photo)

A well-known Bashkir activist who fled Russia fearing persecution over his activities raising awareness about problems faced by Muslims in the country has been held in a deportation center in Greece for almost two months, where authorities tell him they may deport him back to Russia.

After fleeing Russia in 2014, Tahir Minnebayev eventually settled in Ukraine, where he stayed until late February this year when he, his wife, and their four children had to leave the country for Germany after Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of its western neighbor.

Minnebayev told RFE/RL on June 30 that he was detained in Greece in May without any explanation while he was collecting humanitarian aid for children in Ukraine.

Minnebayev said that, after his initial campaign in April to collect aid in Germany for Ukrainian children was successful, he decided to organize more collections and traveled to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Greece, and Turkey on aid missions.

"When I was going to leave Greece for Turkey on a ferry, Greek border guards detained me," the 40-year-old activist said.

"I don't know why I was detained. All my papers are in order."

Along with his valid travel documents and a valid German visa that allows him to travel across Schengen zone member-states, including Greece, Minnebayev says he also has a document confirming that he is under the protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. However, Greek authorities ignored that document, Minnebayev says.

"I tried to explain them that I may face imprisonment or even death in Russia. They then told me to file a political asylum request in Greece, but I already filed such a request in Germany, where my wife and little children are now. They then said they will deport me to Russia if I do not officially ask for political asylum in Greece," Minnebayev said.

According to Minnebayev, he asked the Ukrainian Embassy in Greece for legal assistance given he was in the country collecting humanitarian aid for Ukrainian children. However, he says, Ukrainian diplomats told him that they cannot provide him with any legal assistance as he is not a Ukrainian citizen.

Iranian President Wants Increased Trade With Russia To Bypass Western Financial Systems

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meet on the sidelines of the Caspian Summit in Turkmenistan on June 29.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said in a meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that he wants to expand bilateral trade with Moscow and make it independent of the Western financial exchange system.

Raisi -- who met with Putin on the sidelines of the sixth summit of the Caspian Sea's littoral states in Turkmenistan on June 29 -- added that an independent financial system would make it "impossible for any country to exert influence or pressure on it."

Iran has been under intense economic pressure from the West and the United States for years over its nuclear program. Russia has likewise been hit hard by international sanctions because of its February invasion of Ukraine.

Amid the hardships, Raisi announced there has been an increase in trade and economic relations between the two countries in recent months and said Iran seeks engagement with Russia within the framework of a "strategic relationship."

During the meeting, Putin stressed the security cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.

"We are in constant contact on political and security matters, including in critical areas of Syria," said Putin.

Russia and Iran have solid ties and are key allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in it's decade-long civil war.

Moscow is also a signatory to the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and five world powers under which Tehran was granted sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Biden Pledges Allied Support For Ukraine For 'As Long As It Takes'

U.S. President Joe Biden talks to reporters in Madrid on June 30.

President Joe Biden says the United States and its allies will continue to support Ukraine in its war against Russia for "as long as it takes" to make sure it is victorious.

"We are going to stick with Ukraine, and all of the alliance are going to stick with Ukraine, as long as it takes to make sure they are not defeated by Russia," Biden told a news conference at the end of a NATO summit in Madrid on June 30.

"Ukraine has already dealt a severe blow to Russia," Biden said, adding that he did not "know how it's going to end, but it will not end with a Russian defeat of Ukraine."

Biden said that as part of its commitment to Ukraine, the United States plans to announce more than $800 million more" for air defense, artillery, counter battery systems and other weaponry. He did not say when the announcement will come.


Iran Tells UN Security Council It's Ready For More Indirect Talks With U.S. On Nuclear Deal

Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht-Ravanchi (file photo)

Iran says it is ready for more indirect talks with the United States to overcome the last hurdles to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Iran's ambassador to the United Nation told the UN Security Council on June 30 that the Iranian negotiating team was "ready to engage constructively again to conclude and reach agreement.”

Majid Takht Ravanchi said the ball was in the U.S. court, and if the United States "acts realistically and shows its serious intention to implement its obligations, the agreement is not out of reach.”

Ravanchi’s remarks came a day after indirect negotiations between Iran and the the United States ended in Qatar after failing to make significant progress. Ravanchi described the Qatar talks as “serious and positive” and said Tehran would contact the European Union coordinators “for the next stage of talks.”

Iran's Foreign Ministry said earlier that it was still possible to overcome differences and reach an agreement to salvage the pact.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted on June 30 that, despite a failure to reach an agreement in two days of talks that ended on June 29, "we are ready to reach a good, robust and lasting deal."

The three European countries that signed the deal urged Tehran to seize an offer that is on the table to revive it.

Britain, Germany, and France told the UN Security Council that negotiations to restore the pact “have resulted in a viable deal being on the table since early March" and they regretted that Iran “has refused to seize this diplomatic opportunity and continued its nuclear escalation."

They called on Iran to "stop and reverse its nuclear escalation, return to full cooperation with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and seize without further delay the offer on the table, which would benefit the Iranian people and nation."

The Security Council met to discuss the latest report by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the implementation of a council resolution that enshrines the nuclear deal.

During the most recent talks in Doha, EU envoys bounced between negotiating teams from Washington and Tehran as they sought a breakthrough that would kickstart broader talks that broke down in March.

Since then, Iran has shut off the surveillance cameras of international inspectors at its nuclear facilities and now has enough high-enriched uranium to potentially make at least one nuclear bomb if it chose to do so.

Each side blamed the other for the lack of progress in Doha, with Washington saying Iran continues to raise issues "wholly unrelated" to the deal, while Tehran says the Washington's insistence on excluding any guarantee for Iran's economic benefits was the main impediment.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. EU countries have been forced to find oil suppliers other than Russia as they seek to lower their reliance on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart in 2018 when then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal.

Washington subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.

Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations in Vienna with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States indirectly -- to revive the deal.

Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.

One of them is Tehran's insistence that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

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